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On average, debate rounds typically last somewhere between forty-five minutes to an hour, depending on the style of debate. This means that for the fraction of that time where you are actually standing in front of the podium and communicating with your judge, you must balance the daunting task of both engaging your opponents in the vast array of factors that make a debater effective while personalizing the round to your judge beyond the topic’s disconnected nature. Overcoming the removed nature of the round can be a fundamental roadblock for many debaters even though this challenge, when conquered, is essential to maximizing the judge-to-competitor relationship.
With that being said, the point of this article is not to leave you in despair regarding the natural limitations of relationship-building in a debate round. Instead, as the title suggests, I would like to couple the previous paragraph with a strategic reminder of an essential aid in the debate round – Non-verbals.
Non-verbals are constituted by your communication to the judge beyond the words that proceed from your mouth. It is your level of eye contact, the position of your feet, and your calculated expressions throughout the round. As non-verbals, all of these behaviors are important because of their role in developing sincerity. If you lack them, you will appear as an impersonal chalkboard. If you abuse them, you will come across as a stuck-up know-it-all. But through trial and error, well-developed non-verbals will serve as your most powerful tool in creating that “instant connection” with your judge.
So what does this look like? Non-verbal communication is what we would call a “soft skill,” and these are often considered the hardest skills to learn. Here are some simple questions to get you started:
1. What direction are my feet pointing? Feet can often be a huge indicator of where you subconsciously want to be. Make sure that in moments like cross-examination as well as greeting and thanking your judges, you direct both your words and body toward them.
2. What does your table look like? As your outward appearance reveals your inner composure, make sure that there is, at least, a basic level of organization and neatness to your table.
3. What is your tone of voice? Although this is technically a noise that you are making, I find this to be one of the largest deficiencies in many debaters’ communication. Judges, especially in the Christian community, are looking to connect with debaters who speak intelligently and kindly towards competitors and themselves. Additionally, if debate is supposed to prepare you for the real world, then it is important to start developing control over your composure now. This means smiling despite agitation, pushing for answers without pushing tempers, and respecting others despite disagreements. Take care to avoid angered responses in the round or discussions about the round afterward, as you never know who will be listening.
My last comment on this is a reference to a thirty-minute video on an analysis of non-verbals. If you are in the middle of cleaning your room or on your way to debate club, I encourage you to give it a listen!
Jala Boyer has earned numerous 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place medals and competed at the NCFCA National Championship in five categories. As an intern on the Student Advisory Council of the NCFCA, Jala worked alongside the executive director, Kim Cromer, to learn the inner workings of competitive speech and debate, helping students create long-term and meaningful success. Jala is currently an Honors student at Liberty University studying communications with an emphasis in politics. To book a coaching session with Jala, follow this link https://www.ethosdebate.com/ coaching/book-coach/